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Opening the Door: The Hunt for Oil

In 2008, the US Minerals Management Service conducted a lease sale for oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi Sea, off the coast of Alaska, a vast area of the sea encompassing some 53,125 square miles.  Exploring this area for its oil reserves is not without significant technical challenge and  controversy, but the demand for oil and gas in the US and around the world is undeniable and the considerable risks involved in working in such a remote and sensitive ecosystem found economically justifiable.  Driven by demand, technological challenges can be overcome, additional expense involved in working in remote areas deemed worth making, and risks to those conducting this exploration are taken willingly.  Such decisions are made even more justifiable when oil and gas reserves in more easily explored and developed areas are dwindling when demand is growing.   

In 1848, exploration for another kind of oil was being driven by very similar conditions.  Traditional sources were declining, and the cost of finding it was increasing.  Rumors of more abundant resources in more remote areas were widely discussed, and rising demand was making the balance sheet favor taking the risk to explore these new areas. 

Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus)

Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus)

This oil was whale oil, and combined with baleen or whalebone (used for making consumer goods like corsets and buggy whips), the potential profits from this exploration made it worth taking.  This terra incognito was the Western Arctic, a place of ice and fog, wind and unknown shoals and coasts.  While whalers had struck out looking for new whaling grounds and circled the globe many times in this hunt, few of the places they found had the potential risks involved that were present in Arctic waters.  But whaling was a very important part of the economy of the young United States of America.  Many traditional whaling grounds were becoming far less productive as a result of the intense whaling conducted there, and the industry was reduced to taking less “greasy” whales – whales that have less blubber and therefore produced fewer barrels of oil – and fewer whales on each successive trip.  Therefore, the allure of new grounds and large numbers of “greasy” whales was too great an attraction to whaling captains and ship owners to not eventually assume the significant risks of penetrating the Arctic.

Capt. Thomas Welcome Roys
      (from Bockstoce 1986)

Capt. Thomas Welcome Roys (from Bockstoce 1986)

One such Captain was Thomas Roys.  Having heard the rumors, and desperate  to fill the hold of his whaling ship, the bark SUPERIOR out of Sag Harbor, New York, with oil and whalebone, his imagination was captured by the allure of these potentially rich but forbidding whaling grounds.  In July of 1848, Roys was becalmed in the northern Bering Sea near the Strait, and saw on the horizon a number of umiaks, or skin boats, filled with more than 200 natives.  Uncertain whether the approaching natives were hostile, Roys took the opportunity, with a fortuitously rising southwest wind, to pass into the Bering Strait headed for the unknown.  His crew, while relieved of one fearful possibility, faced another even more dire, sailing into the unknown, and they were most reluctant to follow the Captain’s orders.  However, Roys was a skillful and experienced whaling captain, and avoided the mutiny (armed with the ships’ only weapon).  They sailed into a dense fog – quite common in the Bering Sea that time of year – which only made the situation worse aboard the ship.  A day later, when the fog lifted, they found themselves surrounded by whales, what they thought at first were humpbacks, but soon discovered that they were a new kind of whale, called a Bowhead, which was very “greasy.”  Additionally, as they had not been hunted before, they were quite easy to catch.  Soon the fear was replaced with the toil of harpooning, cutting in, and trying out this wealth of oil.  In the short time they were there, they took eleven whales and filled the ship with 1,600 barrels of oil. 

The door had been opened, and what they found behind it was almost too good to be true.